Brainstorming on the beach

June 3, 2019Emma Kennedy, University of Queensland

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is the planet’s largest living structure — the size of 70 million football fields — and is of incredible cultural, biological and economic significance to Australians. Yet astonishingly, no complete detailed biological or geomorphic maps of The Great Barrier Reef exist.

This is something that the Allen Coral Atlas intends to remedy.

Last month, the University of Queensland mapping team were joined by Allen Coral Atlas partners Helen Fox (National Geographic engagement team lead), Greg Asner (from ASU’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science), Robin Martin (ASU change detection team lead), and Kyle Rice (Vulcan) at their local field site, Heron Island, in the Great Barrier Reef. 

Left to right: National Geographic's Helen Fox and Vulcan’s Kyle Rice join UQ mapping team members Chris Roelfsema, Kat Markey, and Emma Kennedy to perform field data collection.

Heron Island, a tiny sand cay nestled in the Capricornia Bunker region of the southern GBR, is a 2-hour boat ride from land and is surrounded by 27 square km of coral reef platform — just one of the 2,900 or more reefs that make up the GBR. Less than one kilometre long, the island itself is home to the oldest GBR marine research station. Kitted out with comfortable dormitories, copious lab space, a few research vessels and even a tiny scuba facility, Heron Island Research Station was the perfect location for the mapping team to introduce their Atlas teammates to the Great Barrier Reef, brainstorm ideas, and — more importantly — collect some field data!

Project Officer Kat Markey staying cheery despite the stormy weather

It was a productive three days, despite some wet weather. In addition to surveys by diving and snorkelling, the team developed a resource pack of training guides for the National Geographic field engagement team.These presentation recordings, written manuals, and field kits will be distributed to project partners who plan to contribute data to the project. With an extensive reef flat, a deep lagoon dotted with patch reefs, and a reef rim exposed at low tide, Heron showcases all the geomorphic habitats found in a coral reef. This setting offered ecologists the perfect opportunity to introduce their teammates to a few mapping classes, train them in the field methodology, and get a true sense of the enormity of the challenge ahead — mapping all of the world’s coral reefs. Heron Island has been intensively studied by Dr. Chris Roelfsema, Prof. Stuart Phinn, and the team at the Remote Sensing Research Centre at University of Queensland over the past 20 years. It’s their backyard, where they developed and practiced a variety of field techniques, tested mapping approaches, and compared various airborne and satellite image types. The mapping approach developed on Heron Island reef was subsequently tested on reefs throughout the Asia-Pacific and Caribbean. 

Dr. Chris Roelfsema prepares to conduct a snorkelling survey. The geo-referenced photo data collected is key for the calibration of training maps and validation of project outputs.

 Most recently, mapping approaches were extrapolated to the 20 neighbouring reefs in the Capricornia Bunker and 237 reefs in the Cairns sector(further north) of the central GBR. To come back to the place where the project all started was great fun. 

          Check out the results from this field survey